Much like the Victorian audiences who attended the music hall burlesques, or “shockers,” audiences who watch Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem know exactly what they’re in store for. Violence, gore, and butcherings. A little sex, a little naughtiness, and a whole lot of cruelty. Twists and turns, suspicions and revelations, and through it all the kind of charming production values British period horror films have been known for since the heyday of Hammer Horror. Some might be shocked by the surprise ending—though I doubt it; it’s too predictable—but it’s mostly irrelevant. We’re here for the juicy parts in-between. As a narrative, The Limehouse Golem is clichéd and predictable (no disrespect to Peter Ackroyd, the novelist whose book was adapted into this film). But as a grotesque bit of pulp, one could do worse.
A mad killer is on the loose in 1880 London, slicing up victims with a brutality and panache that would be unrivaled until the arrival of Jack the Ripper eight years later. There’s no pattern to the murders: the victims range from the rich to the poor, from men to women, from Christians to Jews. Even worse, the murderer uses their victims’ blood to write cryptic messages in Latin on the walls of their crime scenes. It’s the kind of ghastly stuff that horrifies even veteran Scotland Yard detective John Kildare (played by Bill Nighy in a performance WAY too good for this film). His investigation eventually brings him to Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke), a singer being tried for the murder of her husband who rose from abused street urchin to music hall superstar. Along the way he encounters a bevy of great historical figures who become primary suspects, including political theorist Karl Marx, writer George Gissing, and actor Dan Leno. One of the film’s more unique stylistic decisions sees Kildare imagine these personages reenacting the grisly killings. So if you’ve ever wanted to see Karl Marx brutally decapitate a prostitute, this movie’s for you.
The Limehouse Golem is perfect pulp: it isn’t particularly scary or suspenseful, but it does deliver the grind house goods. I’ve heard some people describe the film as having feminist undercurrents, especially with regards to its treatment of Elizabeth as a headstrong woman who survived horrific abuse—it’s implied her insane mother penetrated her vagina with a hot poker after she was molested by a dockworker—and pulled herself up by her bootstraps. But I’m not so sure. The film seems more interested in being disturbing and lurid than in promoting a message. But that leads to a further dilemma: does that mean this is the kind of film that considers child molestation as mere shock fodder? Hopefully not. In this case, I’ll give the film the benefit of the doubt.